The need for a European Citizens’ Initiative on Universal and Unconditional Basic Income

22.12.2018 - Madrid, Spain - Ángel Bravo

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The need for a European Citizens’ Initiative on Universal and Unconditional Basic Income
The biggest question in the world asked during the UBI referendum in Switzerland (Image by Generation Grundeinkommen en Flickr)

In 2013, a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on Universal and Unconditional Basic Income (UBI)[1] was carried out, but the one million signatures required were not collected and for some activists the action was a failure. The truth is that, back then UBI was not as well-known as it is now, and so the support it could get was much smaller.  After that attempt, two significant events occurred that brought UBI to the forefront: the inclusion of UBI by the new Spanish political party Podemos in its programme for the European elections in 2014, and the Swiss referendum on UBI in June 2016.  After these two milestones, UBI started to appear in the media with unusual frequency and is now an issue that is beginning to provoke much debate.

However the kind of UBI we’re talking about must be made very clear, because nowadays there is a lot of confusion about it.  In many places, conditioned benefits for the poor, i.e. minimum incomes, are designated as basic income.  This is a trap that prevents people from getting out of poverty, because when someone finds a job, which is often temporary and precarious, they prefer to continue receiving benefits rather than accept the new job.  On the other hand, in order to protect the socio-economic system from the chaos that will result from the massive loss of jobs due to the advance of automation, neoliberal circles increasingly talk about the need to adopt a UBI.  For example, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, better known as the Davos Forum, in an interview with a German newspaper in early 2017[2].  In the same vein are other top managers of technology companies, almost all linked to the Silicon Valley complex: for example, Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, Sam Altman, Richard Branson, Ray Kurzweil or Elon Musk[3].  Even the IMF has been sent out to speak on the subject to support the measure[4].

But let’s not fool ourselves, the purpose of the neoliberal elite is in no way altruistic. A well-known Spanish economist, Niño Becerra, at the last symposium of the Spanish Basic Income Network, privately pointed out that global governance plans for the future will be based on three factors: a UBI, legal marijuana and large doses of entertainment. Their goal is to silence discontent and protests thanks to the charity of the UBI and to numb people through marijuana and entertainment.  The echoes of Huxley’s “Brave New World” are obvious.

In the face of growing inequality, both between people in the same country and between different countries; in the face of the tide of irrationalism, expressed in the rise of racism, xenophobia and the emergence of right-wing populist movements, which appear as an unwarranted reaction to the growing exclusion suffered by millions of people; and in order to alleviate the massive unemployment that all studies predict in the short term, a Universal Basic Income is increasingly necessary, conceived of as the satisfaction of the fundamental human right to material subsistence and that, therefore, is granted to every human being by the mere fact of having been born.  This UBI should have four characteristics, all of which are essential for it to be valid:

  • universal, given to everyone, regardless of age, race, place of residence or income;
  • unconditional, there are no pre-conditions to be fulfilled, not even the fact of not having a job or the obligation to seek one;
  • individual, it is given to each person, even if they live with others in the same family unit;
  • sufficient, it must be equal, as a minimum, to the poverty threshold of each region or country, in order to guarantee decent living conditions.

Opposition to this much-needed measure is based, above all, on the assumption that it cannot be financed. But today there are detailed studies on how to do it, such as that of the Catalans Daniel Raventós, Lluís Torrens, Jordi Arcarons and Antoni Domènech[5]. While this study is based on increasing taxation for all, through which the rich would actually pay for the UBI, there are many other ways to make it economically possible, such as taxing shares in public limited companies or increasing indirect taxes on those who consume the most, or levying taxes on financial transactions (Tobin tax) and polluting emissions, or fighting tax fraud and tax havens, or through a mix of all of them.

The concept behind all this is that today the generation of wealth has multiplied exponentially and that this wealth has been produced thanks to the efforts of all past generations and all of today’s society, being, therefore, the patrimony of all, without exclusion, not only those who are considered “legal owners”.

Guy Standing, in his book “The precariat, a new social class”, expresses it very correctly:

“Philosophically, a basic income may be thought of as a ‘social dividend’, a return on past investment. Those who attack it as giving something for nothing tend to be people who have been given a lot of something for nothing, often having inherited wealth, small or vast. This leads to the point elegantly made by Tom Paine in his Agrarian Justice of 1795. Every affluent person in every society owes their good fortune largely to the efforts of their forebears and the efforts of the forebears of less affluent people. If everybody were granted a basic income with which to develop their capabilities, it would amount to a dividend from the endeavours and good luck of those who came before. The precariat has as much right to such a dividend as anybody else”[6].

But, although it may not seem so, the greatest opposition to UBI comes from the prejudices installed in our heads. UBI questions head-on several deep-rooted beliefs: the first is that work (or rather, employment) dignifies human beings; the second is that it comes from the Bible and condemns us to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow; the third is that the meaning of people’s lives is work; the fourth is that it equates employment with survival; and the fifth is that today’s wealth belongs only to its “legal” owners, the big multinational companies and the global financial lobbies.

That is why, in order to introduce it, a change in our minds is going to be necessary. Perhaps this is due to the imperative of our own circumstances, for example, as we have mentioned before, due to the urgency of responding to the widespread unemployment that is coming, due to the progress of artificial intelligence. Hopefully, this mental change will result in a worldwide extension of the feeling of solidarity towards other human beings, but for this it would be necessary to take into account the whole of our species that we are all part of, in reality.

For all these reasons, now seems to me to be a very appropriate moment to launch an ECI on UBI, that proposes UBI in its correct expression, that is to say, with those four characteristics that we indicated before.

There are those who say that an ECI proposing such a UBI will be impossible for the European Union (EU) to implement, since the EU does not have the competence to oblige member states to adopt it, so the EU limits itself to recommending its establishment to the nations that are part of the region.  However, an ECI gives us the opportunity to talk to many people, both because of the dynamics of signature collection, both on paper and online, and because it is going to be news in the media.

We need to detach ourselves from the results and focus on the possibility of raising awareness in the grassroots offered by this ECI, a bit like the referendum held in Switzerland, where at first it was thought that practically no one would support a measure like the UBI and, in the end, 22% of people were in favour, which was a great success for the organisers and meant a significant popularisation of the subject throughout Europe.

On the contrary, using a campaign of such a calibre as an ECI to talk about any kind of measures that wouldn’t even reach half the minimum income of a country as unequal as Spain, arguing that it would have a better chance of being adopted by the EU and would introduce the concept of unconditionality, seems to be a waste of activists’ effort dedicated to a gradualist measure which, as several scholars have already indicated, is doubtful that it could lead to a full UBI.

Images with brightness and strength, even if they are considered utopian, move people much more than those without. We need big projects and big dreams to advance towards a fairer world and in keeping with the human being we long for.  As Constantine P. Cavafy said:

Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.


[1] “One Million Signatures Against Inequalities and for Dignity”, Público, 18/09/2013:  https://www.publico.es/actualidad/millon-firmas-desigualdades-y-dignidad.html

“285,042 European citizens want the EC to consider basic income”, P2P Foundation, March 11, 2014: https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/285042-european-citizens-want-the-ec-to-consider-basic-income-ubi-press-release-after-the-eci-ubi-campaign/2014/03/11

[2] SWITZERLAND: World Economic Forum founder considers basic income “basically plausible”, BIEN Basic Income News, January 12, 2017: https://basicincome.org/news/2017/01/germany-world-economic-forum-founder-assents-basic-income-basically-plausible/

“This is how a universal basic income can end financial exclusion”, World Economic Forum, July 6, 2017: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/can-universal-basic-income-boost-financial-inclusion-and-transparency/

[3] “Richard Branson just endorsed basic income — here are 10 other tech moguls who support the radical idea”, Business Insider, August 21, 2017: https://www.businessinsider.com/entrepreneurs-endorsing-universal-basic-income-2017-3

[4] “IMF Proposes Tax Increases for the Rich and Universal Basic Income to Address Social Gap”, The Economist, 11/10/2017: https://www.eleconomista.es/economia/noticias/8668618/10/17/El-FMI-recomienda-subidas-de-impuestos-a-los-ricos-y-un-salario-basico-universal-para-atajar-la-brecha-social.html

“The IMF Gives A Cautious Welcome To Universal Basic Income”, Forbes, Oct. 15, 2017: https://www.forbes.com/sites/francescoppola/2017/10/15/the-imf-gives-a-cautious-welcome-to-universal-basic-income/

[5] “A Basic Income financing model for the whole of the Kingdom of Spain: yes, it can be done and it is rational.”, Red Renta Básica, 23/04/2015: http://www.redrentabasica.org/rb/rrbantigua_1184/

[6] Guy Standing: “The precariat. The new dangerous class”, Bloomsbury, London 2011, page 173

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